In preparation for the latest film in the X-Men film franchise, this week at Biff Bam Pop we’re counting down to the Friday release of X-Men: First Class with a series of x-focused articles.
It seems like the X-Men have been around for as long as comic books themselves. The various characters that make up the superhero team: Professor X, Cyclops, Beast, Phoenix, Rogue and Wolverine among others are so ingrained in our consciousness that they seem like good friends. We know them all and we know them well. We know them through their comics and graphic novels, books, toys, video games, cartoons and, of course, films. But since X-Men was first released in the fall of 1963, those characters have undergone stylistic changes, both overt and subtle, by the writers and artists that put pen and pencil to paper.
With X-Men: First Class soon upon us, I thought it might be interesting to go back over the decades and briefly look at three seminal artistic runs on the titular comic book and make note of the changes inherent in the visual representations of Marvel Comics foremost superhero group.
Come. Walk with me.
Alongside incomparable writer Stan Lee, artist Jack Kirby, himself a legend in the comic book world, created the X-Men. Stories focused on themes of prejudice and racism, concepts at the forefront of the American zeitgeist of the time and, really, ideas that remain constant and true to the series – and Marvel Comics – today.
Kirby was the perfect artist for the times. Just as the American civil rights and anti-war movements were gaining strength, Kirby drew his characters as monumental as those ideals, as if they were sculpted from immense stone boulders, a style that perfectly echoed the speeches of Martin Luthor King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Looking at the cover of the first issue of X-Men (and saying nothing about Iceman’s poor aim with his snowball attack!), Kirby’s characters are squat in appearance, but full of kinetic energy, ready to quickly uncoil and snap into action. Indeed, they could fly right off of the page! His inked lines here are thick and deliberate, giving a sense of weight and gravitas to the page while his powerful, artistic storytelling is truly evident. With one look at these new characters, the reader, simply by glancing at the cover and following the action from the top of the page to the bottom, knows the powers of each of the main characters – a very clever form of visual storytelling, inherent to the sequential storytelling medium.
Even though they are costumed differently than what twenty-first century audiences are used to seeing, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Cyclops are easily identified – a testament to Kirby’s design sense and the timelessness of those characters.
The decade of the 1970’s saw a drastic change for the X-Men in that many more characters were brought into the team. Still, the stories of this decade were built upon the themes that had come before. Where once X-Men was about human rights, it was now about diversity in all of its forms. The character of Colossus, he of communist origins, was brought into the fold, as was Storm from Kenya, the Native American, Thumderbird, and the character called Sunfire from Japan.
Dave Cockrum lent his considerable cinematic artistic skills to the series through the middle part of the decade and the beginning of the next. Coupled with esteemed writer Chris Claremont, the duo took a more realistic, gritty, noir slant to storytelling. In fact, this new sense of realism would arguably be what Marvel Comics would become synonymous with over the years.
In the above example, taken from page 3 of X-Men issue 147, one can see that noir realism evident. Cockrum makes strong use of black inks on this page, imbibing it with a sense of extreme drama at Nightcrawler’s near drowning, tricks akin to a Hitchcock or Scorsese film. His storytelling is another strength on this page witnessed in the lonely, long plunge into darkness in panel four, echoed in the plaintive gasp for air in the sixth panel. Cockrum, in one page, makes the reader feel the intense despair and isolation of the character – but not before letting us know that the hero survives this dance with death, if just barely. We need to turn that page!
X-Men, during this time, would flourish as a monthly series and become one of the tent poles for Marvel Comics. Dave Cockrum was instrumental to that success, his stylistic choices tapping into the imagination of that decade’s audience.
The 1980’s, specifically, the latter part of the decade, was one of extreme makeover for the comic book industry. The realism of the 1970’s gave way to hyper-realized, nearly abstract art.
Audiences craved more and more action in their comics and a new breed of young artist would heed that call. The late 1980’s saw the rise of pencillers like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Eric Larsen, Todd McFarlane and Marc Silvestri. Interestingly, it was the artist now that was becoming the superhero – where names alone could sell hundreds of thousands of units of a single comic book!
Silvestri worked on X-Men for nearly three years and reinvigorated the action found both on and between the covers of the comic. His style was loose and highly kinetic. Backgrounds were secondary to foreground combat. Movement, speed and force were sought on the page and audiences clamored for more of this innovative type of design.
Characters were, of course, recognizable, but they were elongated, stretched or inflated to suit the action occurring on a panel. The female form was drawn with accentuated legs, high hips, (sometimes nearly no rib cage) and large breasts. Bypassing realism in this way had the visual effect of adding a sense of energy to the drawing, helping to entrench these characters beside their male counterparts as a realistic physical threat. If they were abstract, so too was their intimidation. The merits of this style are debatable.
Silvestri’s run on X-Men was highly acclaimed and he garnered a strong and loyal following. Eventually, he would leave Marvel Comics and co-form Image Comics along with some of the biggest names the industry has ever seen.
X-Men has had a very successful twenty-first century thus far, with new, fan favourite artists like Frank Quitely taking turns on the infamous characters. With the new film, X-Men: First Class, the ideas first investigated in the pages of the monthly comic book in 1963 look to be revisited yet again, a testament to the longevity and universality of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original vision.
Enjoy the film and as Stan would say: “Excelsior!”